More Young People Need To Turn Out To Vote, But Lowering The Voting Age Is Not The Answer

30/12/2016 14:36


The Conversation

The current rate of youth turnout for elections in the United Kingdom makes for worrying reading. In the last three general elections, an average of approximately 40% of people aged 18-24 turned out to vote- over twenty percent lower than in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In a 2013 trans-European study, just 38% of young Britons answered 'yes' to the question: "during the last 3 years, did you vote in any election at the local, regional or national level?"- the lowest percentage out of all the EU countries polled. In the 2014 European elections, under a third of those eligible to vote under the age of 24 participated. Too, youth in Britain have become disenchanted at current political affairs in their country; a recent audit found that less than half of young people believe that getting involved in politics is effective. The argument for lowering the age of voting from 18 to 16 has been existent for decades and its campaigns gain traction every year- especially with the lowering of the minimum voting age for the 2014 Scottish referendum- but allowing 16 year olds to vote is not necessarily the most optimal solution, and could precipitate more negative than positive outcomes in the future.

The primary and obvious argument against lowering the voting age is that 16 year olds are simply not sufficiently mature, or knowledgeable enough about politics, to be able to make decisions that have substantial impact on the future of the country. Even at the age of 18, it can be argued that many people do not have the maturity and awareness to make an informed decision on political affairs. Judging by various opinion polls, it seems interest in politics is crucially lacking too- a 2014 survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics revealed that less than a third - just 31% - of 16-24 year olds were 'fairly' interested in politics. It would thus be unwise to extend the vote to an electorate who predominantly hold little interest in the subject, and thus would be making an uninformed and careless decision.

It is doubtless that there are plenty of mature, adult-like and sensible 16 year olds able to think independently and make an informed decision- indeed, there will be some more mature than certain adults. But, ultimately, we must remember that a 16 year old is yet to fully develop cognitively and is still by definition a 'child'. After all, a 16 year old is not allowed to purchase alcohol or cigarettes, and is prohibited from gambling- allowing them the vote in spite of all of these societal prohibitions would make little sense. Scientific studies conclusively show that the brain's prefrontal cortex - which helps weigh moral dilemmas, control emotions and think in abstracts - is not close to being fully developed at age 16.

Further, important to remember is that politics is not a compulsory subject on the national school curriculum - its substitute, 'citizenship' or PSHE, teaches an extremely minor amount about current affairs and the U.K. political system. Thus, unless particularly absorbed in politics and largely enthusiastic about it (which, given the previous statistic of just one third holding an interest, seems unlikely) 16 year olds most likely have limited exposure to political information and facts, and are hence susceptible to subscribing to the 'herd mentality'; voting for the same candidate as their peers based on generalizations and not much specific information.

Lowering the voting age would, proportionally, also decrease overall turnout, contrary to popular belief that broadening the vote would boost it. In terms of numbers, more people would indeed vote. But upon assessing how many 18-24 year olds voted in the most recent General Election - just over 40% - we can only assume this figure would be similar, if not significantly lower, for the 16-17 year old age bracket. Already in the bottom half of countries in Europe ranked by turnout, a further decrease would be counter-productive in aiming to boost Britain's voter turnout.

It is undoubtable that a significant proportion of young people in the U.K. today are apathetic to today's politics, and translate their disinterest into abstinence from voting. There is also a broad consensus amongst politicians and the public alike that more efforts need to be made to engage the youth in politics. However, lowering the voting age to increase participation is not the appropriate remedy for today's participation problem. Not only do the majority of young people not display an interest in politics, but the immaturity and general nescience surrounding political affairs on the part of 16 year olds means that extending the vote would be an unwise decision. Rather, alternative strategies should be pursued: compulsory politics classes in schools' curricula, increased council funding for boroughs to engage their youth in politics, and a greater grassroots effort from the main parties to mobilize young people in communities are all viable options. As a society we are right in attempting to increase youth political participation - though extending the vote to a section of the electorate that is generally disinterested in, and not fully knowledgeable about, political affairs is a majorly risky path that the United Kingdom would do well to omit.